On April 28, a global committee of legal scholars released the document “Human Mobility and Human Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic: Principles of Protection for Migrants, Refugees, and Other Displaced Persons.” In response to this record time of crisis, states across the globe have taken harsh and unprecedented measures against these vulnerable persons, exacerbating pre-existing threats of financial insecurity, homelessness, and displacement.
Aimed to apply these human rights principles to the context of COVID-19, the points outlined in the document are endorsed by more than 800 scholars around the world. Rights to health, information, non-discrimination, due process, and the right not to be returned to a risk of serious harm were identified, “reminding states of these core obligations that they’ve already agreed to,” Kysel, co-founder of the International Migrants Bill of Rights Initiative, stated.
States are not absolved from responsibility to protect migrants and refugees according to international human rights law, treaties, and accepted guidelines – the authors emphasize. “Turbulent times do not justify claims that rights can be dispensed with or set aside because they are considered inconvenient to the pursuit of controlling the virus.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mirrored this stance, as President Peter Maurer underlined on his April 28 statement. As the pandemic exacerbates already-devastating humanitarian situations, the ICRC voiced their concern that this will compound the suffering of these already-vulnerable populations.
While the crisis’s unprecedented demands call for additional powers for states to cope, COVID-19 has been used as an unacceptable cover for human rights violations. Across the globe, we have seen a spike in authoritarianism, repressiveness, racism, and militarization. In Doha, hundreds of migrant workers were detained in inhumane conditions after being told they were being tested for COVID-19, only to be illegally expelled with no explanation.
Rohingya refugees are stuck at sea as the Malaysian government turned away their boats. Donald Trump’s executive order on April 22 cracks down on immigration, even after already blocking access to the country’s asylum system.
In her April 28 OHCHR press release statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned governments that emergency powers should be used to effectively cope with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less. They are not weapons governments “can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power.” Reiterating that different countries are at varying stages of the pandemic, “penalties for violating [measures] should be proportionate, and not imposed in an arbitrary way.”
On 1st April, UN Special Rapporteur Cecilia Jimenez-Damary called on States to include displaced people on their decision-making process, as their participation in identifying these challenges and designing tailored responses to COVID-19 is essential. “It is important that IDPs are not abandoned in this crisis. I call on States to exercise their sovereign responsibility to protect them and without diverting from existing delivery of humanitarian assistance.” As the authors of the “Human Mobility and Human Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic” document said, “it is precisely in such times that international human rights do their most important work, reminding us of the core principles of the humanity we are struggling to preserve.”
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